POST FALLS - The new Post Falls Teen Court is about to be in session.
The school district and police department have been awarded a $17,000 grant from the Idaho Juvenile Justice Commission to launch a one-year pilot teen court program starting in September.
The court will feature teen peers that will serve on a six-member jury and hear cases involving minor in possession of tobacco or alcohol, curfew violations and runaways.
The program focuses on first-time offenders, and families will have the option of going through the court as opposed to the traditional juvenile justice system.
"This is a chance for teens to work with school resource officers through the process, so we can mentor them as we go along," said Neil Uhrig, an SRO at Post Falls High. "One of the hardest parts of our job is that we only bust kids (under the traditional system) and don't get to see how they're doing after that. We send them on to other people and that doesn't foster good relationships with the students."
Uhrig said the "diversionary" program, which is the first of its kind locally, has been successful in other parts of the country.
Uhrig is collaborating with Bridget Eismann of the police department and Mark Jones, the school district's alternative-to-suspension coordinator, on the effort.
"A strong feature to this program is the community connections that will be made," Jones said.
The juries will consist of 14- to 17-year-olds selected by school resource officers. They will be trained before serving on a jury.
"The jury will not decide if the teen is guilty," said Uhrig, adding that the teens must have already admitted the offense. "The jury will pick the sentence such as community service or writing an essay."
Teens 14 to 17 years old who are interested in serving on a jury can email Uhrig at firstname.lastname@example.org for an application.
School resource officers will serve as the presiding hearing officer.
Accountability and education are benefits of the program, Uhrig said.
"It's an educational process," he said. "We want teachable moments, not just punishment."
Hearings will be held at the Post Falls police station and the first will likely be held in mid-September.
"We'll hold one hearing a month to start out," Uhrig said.
Uhrig said it can take as long as two months for cases in the traditional juvenile justice system to be settled due to a limited number of case workers.
"Teen court wasn't necessarily meant to relieve that strain, but it can be an added benefit," he said.
Uhrig said it's possible the number of hearings and offenses the program applies to will increase in the future.
Post Falls Police Chief Scot Haug said he's proud of the collaboration between the police department and school district.
"It can be easy to go with the status quo, but those involved in this program understand the importance of building relationships with young people and see the big picture," Haug said.